Why No One Wants Smart Kids to Become Repairers

Courtesy of BodyShop Business

by Mark Claypool
April 2001

"Why do our best students get pushed to go to college when we know that only 25 percent of all college graduates go on to employment in their field? Meanwhile, trades are overlooked. How can the collision industry compete with white collar, high-tech industries?" - Dan McClellan, autobody instructor, Great Johnstown Vocational Technical School, Johnstown, Pa.

A Missouri student turned in a research paper for his English class. The assignment: Write about a profession. This student chose the collision repair industry. He'd done a great deal of research and had written a fine paper. I know. I saw it. After handing it in to be graded, the student anxiously awaited getting it back - sure he would get at least a "B" but more likely an "A."

What he got was a big, red "F."

Positive this was a mistake, the student went to the teacher and asked what had happened. She responded, "The assignment was to write about a profession. Working on cars is not a profession."

To understand why educators feel this way about our industry - and to properly answer autobody instructor Dan McClellan's question - we need to look at a number of factors and issues.

The History of Mentoring and Apprenticeships

Let's begin by considering the history of the skilled trades and how the skills were passed from masters to beginners.

In ancient Greece, young boys were paired with older, experienced men so each boy would learn and emulate the values of his "mentor." Basic survival skills, culture and values were learned directly from others whom they admired.

Later, young boys were "apprenticed" to a master in his trade who owned a shop or business. The boy lived with the master, worked his way up to journeyman and finally became a master himself. Out of this came craft guilds, which controlled the quality of work and wages.

The master/apprentice relationship was eventually transformed into the employer/employee relationship by the industrial society. But in the 20th century, for reasons still being studied by sociologists, it became "less than desirable" to seek skilled trade positions. College degrees became the focus and were associated with the only way to truly succeed in life and make a decent living.

Why "Good Students" Go to College

Most educators and nearly all school administrators view education as the only way to go. Who could argue with that? Life-long learning is the best education, but I would argue that this doesn't necessarily have to occur in a school setting. The problem is, many principals and guidance counselors are evaluated based on the percentages of students who graduate from high school and go on to a post-secondary institution. And this becomes a deterrent to sending students to vocational-technical schools.

What they don't track, however, is how many students actually go on to earn a degree. A large percentage drop out of college, try to make a living without any marketable talents and end up coming back to their local community college to learn a skill. That's a big reason why the average age of community college students is in the upper-20s.

In some states, high schools receive revenue for each student seated in a chair at two different times during each day of the week. By sending students to a vocational-technical school, either in the morning or afternoon, the school loses part of that revenue.

So which students do you think they're willing to "get rid of"? The problem students - those who cause trouble in school and who administrators feel have no chance of making it in college.

I remember one case in Pennsylvania where a high school student told his counselor he wanted to attend the local vocational-technical school. The counselor wouldn't allow it, saying this student's grades were "too good" and that he was "college material." He and his parents appealed to the principal, but to no avail. They then appealed to the superintendent - who backed the principal. Not until they got their congressional representative to write a letter of appeal to the school were they able to enroll this young man in a vocational program. That tells you a bit about the mind-set of some people out there. It took nothing short of an act of Congress to persuade these administrators to reluctantly change their minds.

Does that make your blood boil like it does mine?

The Poor Red-Headed Stepchild of the Education System

We know that in most cases - though major exceptions exist in some parts of the country - vocational education is the poor stepchild of the education system. And collision repair training programs are the poor stepchild of vocational education.

There are about 1,400 collision repair training programs out there, and only around 200 of these are ASE-certified. Of those that aren't certified, some are very good, some are just OK and a lot are so lacking that they're a waste of everyone's time and of taxpayer money. And a few of these poor programs tarnish the image of all.

Compounding the problem is that a number of instructors have tenure and feel no obligation to stay up to date by offering a valuable training program. They're just looking forward to retirement and make no extra effort to serve their students or the industry that would love to hire properly trained students. Again, a few bad, tenured instructors tarnish the image of all.

On average, all collision repair training programs are woefully underfunded. And they don't stand much of a chance to increase the support they get from their local school districts unless they have a strong, vocal advisory committee - and even then it's an uphill battle.

It's not cheap to train people to today's standards. If you add up the ASE/NATEF tool and equipment list and tried to purchase everything on it, the cost would be more than $400,000! In my travels across the country, I've noticed that it's not unusual to find annual school budgets less than 1 percent of that; in fact, it was more the norm.

Another issue is that vo-tech education only fills about 25 to 27 percent of the industry's entry-level needs; only three to five students out of an average class of 20 graduate from a two-year training program and go on to work in the industry. These numbers hurt the training program's ability to recruit active advisory committee support. Frankly, thousands of shops out there feel working with schools is a waste of time. Though I understand what led them to feel this way, I disagree with them. We need to keep trying. And we need to keep trying on a perpetual basis, not just when shops are looking to hire someone.

Image: Our Own Worst Enemy

Let's face it. The collision repair industry has often been its own worst enemy. For many years, far too many shops presented a very shoddy image to the public. Shops were dirty, cluttered and dark inside. From the outside, the appearance of shops wasn't much better. Making matters worse, wages weren't too competitive, and our customer service skills, on average, weren't very good.

We've made major strides over the years and are doing a better job today than ever, but there are still too many shops out there that lag behind and tarnish our image.

Even many of our own employees wouldn't recommend this field to their own sons and daughters - not because they can't earn a good living but because parents don't want their kids to be looked down upon by their peers. How many of our own employees can look someone in the eye and proudly announce they work in a body shop? (Even though, chances are, our employees make more money than the person they're talking to. Our average wages are around $37,000, and many make much more than that. Speaking of wages, what does the general public think we earn in this field? I can assure you that they don't think we're anywhere near 37 grand a year.)

That being said, we do have problems at the entry-level. At a time when unemployment rates hover around 4 to 5 percent and store marquees and newspaper want ads are full of opportunity, we must do something to compete for the limited number of workers out there. But when we offer entry-level wages that are below subsistence levels, how can we expect to attract people to our industry? Although this is out of the hands of the education sector, it still hinders the collision repair training programs' ability to attract students to their programs. It also fuels the public's misunderstanding of the earning potential we have in this field.

Another issue that hurts our image is the seemingly annual "slam stories" run by programs such as "60 Minutes" and "20/20." In April 2000, "20/20" ran a story that showed so-called "technicians" using a sledge hammer on the side of cars they were repairing, creating additional damage they could then bill insurance companies for. Clearly fraud. Clearly they should be in jail. Though these people represent a tiny fraction of our industry, the story was presented as if this were all too common. In fact, the concluding remarks of this particular story were that about 40 percent of all repairs are fraudulently done. Millions of people saw this story. What do you think their impressions of our industry were after seeing that? This also hurts our ability to retain existing employees and attract new ones. It's for reasons such as these that the National Auto Body Council (NABC) was formed. Its sole purpose: Enhance the image of the collision repair industry.

What Can We Do?

From a school's perspective:

  • Educate and inform the right people.
  • Have strong, active advisory committees. The assistance good advisory committees give to a vocational training program is invaluable.
  • Get your administrators into your training areas and have them attend open houses hosted by your advisory committee members.
  • Strive for ASE certification or, if you can't reach quite that high right now, take steps toward it. You can expect nothing but positive results from this effort.
  • Host an open house of your own for parents and middle-school students. Open people's eyes to the career opportunities and the earning potential we have in the field.

From an industry perspective, start with the highest ethics and standards. I think the NABC pledge puts it best: "I am part of an ethical, trustworthy, honorable business within the collision repair industry. ... I take pride in my professionalism and my ability to serve my customer. I respect the law and the environment.

"I continue to study my profession and am a participant in my community. I am proud to work in my chosen industry."

The more we all strive toward fulfilling this pledge, or to something similar, the more we'll be able to change the public's perception of our industry.

Another thing we can all do together - or just on the shop side - is establish formal apprenticeships. We can no longer afford to run entry-level people through a "seat of our pants" training approach. We need to insert formal business plans for entry-level training into the system. We need proper selection of in-house mentors, training of those mentors and a road map to follow for training apprentices/students. Working together, shops and schools can articulate the training and application of the skills learned to shorten the learning curve. This will ultimately help us do a better job of professionally training people from the ground up, help us attract people to our profession and retain them long term. If we don't do this, shops will continue to be stuck with a nationwide 70 to 80 percent failure rate on entry-level training and retention.

But none of this will happen overnight. It's taken us decades to get into this situation, and it's going to take a lot of time and effort to pull ourselves out. But together we can chip away at it one piece at a time. The better shops and training programs in this country will make the necessary adjustments. Those that don't ... well, as the saying goes, "You get back what you put in."

Writer Mark Claypool is president of Mentors at Work and the executive director of the National Auto Body Council, and was the former executive director of the I-CAR Education Foundation and the former director of development for Skills USA/VICA


Copyright 2001 Mentors At Work, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.